Defra aims to restore public faith in sustainability communications

Companies are increasingly using ‘green claims’ – or communicating on the environmental attributes of their products, services or organisation.   Green claims or labels play an important role in educating and helping consumers make informed decisions about the products or services they purchase, and are also essential in driving businesses to develop products that have a reduced negative impact.

Unfortunately, green claims made by companies aiming to label their environmental credentials are sometimes false or misleading and have the potential to undermine consumer confidence in green marketing or lead to unfair competition between businesses who dishonestly assert to be environmentally conscious.

It is in this context that Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) published an updated Green Claims Guidance earlier this month.  The revised guide advises companies to use clear language when communicating on the environmental impact of their products or services, and encourages the following three steps to be followed:

•    ensure the content of the claim is relevant and reflects a genuine benefit to the environment;

•    present the claim clearly and accurately; and

•    ensure the claim can be substantiated

According to many, making environmental claims is not any different from making any other kinds of claims.  However, the language and terminology used in green claims is still relatively new to people and many terms lack an ‘official’ definition. Among others, Maureen Nowak, the policy advisor in the Green Economy Programme at Defra, holds that it is important to be clear and accurate when communicating environmental credentials because it is key in guaranteeing that claims are reliable and are not misleading consumers.

Defra’s guide goes beyond advertising, covering all forms of communication from marketing, to mission statements, symbols and images.  It aims to facilitate businesses in making clear, accurate, relevant and substantiated environmental claims on products, services or in marketing and advertising and help restore public faith in those claims.

Some would argue that consumers are increasingly choosing to buy products that are more sustainable, providing an opportunity for companies to increase marketing efforts in this domain.  If this is the case, misrepresentation and incorrect claims are essentially taking advantage of consumer’s belief in such claims and ‘green’ products in general.  In fact, a research carried out by Consumer Focus revealed that people find it difficult to determine products that are better for the environment and many think companies use ‘green’ as an excuse to charge higher prices.  Also, two-thirds of the respondents express doubts regarding the truth in ‘green’ product claims.    This has important implications for the green market because consumers’ lack of confidence in green claims will ultimately make them disinclined to exercise their green purchasing power.

The launch of this amended guide has stirred a lot of discussion on the contribution it will make in turning sustainability communication more credible and opinions on this subject are mixed.   For instance, Rowland Hill, Corporate Sustainability Manager for Marks & Spencer, stated: “we welcome the new Green Claims Guidance, which will help companies to market products and services that are more sustainable.”  Ramon Arratia, Sustainability Director EMEAI of InterfaceFLOR, described the guide as “very well crafted, structured and addressing the most common mistakes in green claims.”  On the other hand, Melissa Sterry, Green Awards 2010 Judge and Founding Director of Societas and New Frontiers, sums it up as being a “plain speaking layman’s guide to sustainability communications.”  She opines that the guide is limited in its approach as it tells people how to comply or ‘tick boxes’ rather than craft effective environmental messages. With this scope, she views the guide to be a useful tool for SMEs, rather than larger enterprises.

The guide can therefore be seen as an initial first step, but not a sufficient one to promote the trust and clarity in environmental claims the public is after.

Jessica Wettstein

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